Statement By Mr. Sha Zukang, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs to the Commission on Population and Development
New York, 7 April 2008

I have the honour to address the Commission on Population and Development for the first time as Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs.

The world has made major advances in reducing both mortality and fertility – and, in the process, improving the lives and prospects for millions of families worldwide. The transformational changes in population trends that began last century, and are still playing out, owe much to the intellectual leadership that this Commission has exercised, and to its success in garnering the political commitment necessary to influence population trends.

This week, the Commission will consider an important element of population dynamics: the spatial distribution of population and its interrelations to development. The Commission will focus particularly on the increasing urbanization.

By the end of this year, for the first time in history, half of all people will live in urban areas. More strikingly, population growth, in future, will be absorbed, almost entirely, by urban areas in developing countries.

In slightly more than a decade, the world’s rural population will peak at about 3.5 billion people and, then, start a slow decline. From now to 2050, the urban population of developed countries will change little, remaining at about one billion. Yet, the world’s urban population will continue rising, from 3.3 billion today, to well over 6 billion in 2050.

Three factors drive the growth of the urban population. The first is that the number of births exceeds the number of deaths. Demographers call this “natural increase”. The second is the migration of people from rural to urban areas.

The third is a factor often overlooked: the transformation of rural settlements into urban towns. And these “newly born” cities are often “medium sized”. For instance, between the early 1980s and the 1990s, at least 400 localities that were newly classified as cities – each with 100,000 inhabitants or more – were added to the urban population of Asia alone, thus producing almost instantaneous spurts of growth in the urban population.

Understanding the components of urban population growth is important because the spatial distribution of their populations is a concern for the vast majority of Governments.

The most common policy response has been to try to reduce rural to urban migration. Yet, in most developing countries, such migration is not the major contributor to urban growth. And it is very difficult to succeed in keeping people in the countryside when the pull of the city is strong, offering greater opportunities and a higher quality of life. This suggests that developing countries wishing to slow down urban population growth should focus, instead, on ways of reducing natural increase in their urban areas.

Mounting evidence indicates that there are still major disparities in access to services, not only between rural and urban dwellers, but also between poor urban dwellers and the rest. Furthermore, the advantage of urban areas in terms of access to reproductive health and family planning is smaller than one would expect. Much can be done to improve access by both poor urban dwellers and rural residents to those services.

In this context, let me also underscore the importance of programmes that focus specifically on improving the health status of poor children, whether in rural or urban areas. Such programmes would not only save lives and improve children’s well-being; they would also allow parents to have fewer children, while still reaching the family size they desire.

As more effort and resources are concentrated in supporting countries’ efforts to reach the Millennium Development Goals by 2015, it is important to understand how population distribution conditions the lives of people – and interacts with other demographic processes – in order to plan and target interventions effectively.

Large cities, despite their problems, produce better health outcomes than smaller cities. And cities, in turn, tend to provide better livelihoods to the average inhabitant than rural areas. Enabling local authorities to tailor interventions to their particular settings is an important consideration in responding to the challenges posed by uneven population distribution and access to services and resources.

This Commission plays a crucial role in ensuring that the root causes of population trends are understood and reflected properly in international discourse. The rigour with which the Commission lays out the facts, and assesses their consequences for policy action, is one of its fundamental assets. I hope that the valuable work of the Commission may contribute to the newly mandated activities of the Economic and Social Council and, in particular, to the Annual Ministerial Review of progress towards the MDGs and other internationally agreed development goals. The focus of the Review, this year, is on sustainable development commitments; next year, it will be global health.

To conclude, let me recall the following guidance provided by the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development: “Effective population distribution policies are those that, while respecting the right of individuals to live and work in the community of their choice, take into account the effects of development strategies on population distribution”.

Mr. Chairman, distinguished Delegates, I hope this principle will prove useful in guiding your deliberations, and I wish you a most productive and successful session.